To the National to see the first night of England People Very Nice by Richard Bean. A huge, rolling, epic show of Brechtian proportions and aesthetic. It marks another staging post, after Mother Claps Molly House and Jerry Springer, the Opera in NT boss Nick Hytner's fearless attempt to mix populist theatre with contemporary political debate. The result isn't subtle, but it is funny. In many ways this is Stratford East fare and sits a little uncomfortably with the Surrey commuters in Waterloo.
A group of asylum seekers at Pocklington Immigration centre, decide to devise a play to pass the time as they await the 'brown envelopes' which will tell them whether they can remain in the UK
The play they perform is set over four hundred years in Bethnal Green and follows the waves of immigrants from the French Huguenots, to the Irish, to the Russian Jews through to the Bangladeshi community on Brick Lane. All watched over from The Britannia pub by the never aging publican Laurie, barmaid Ida and Barbadian regular Rennie.
Each group fears the arrival of the next and territorial battles over housing, jobs and cultural rights are provoked at every turn. The brilliance of the production is to show that these fears are neither culturally nor historically specific. And for romantics there is one Romeo and Juliet style cross cultural affair in each confrontation to suggest that love can transcend both language and orthodox faith.
Towards the end of the twentieth century a couple, not so different from many of us in the audience, arrive 'to try and make a difference' and delight in the fact that a racist stabbing has occurred on their doorstep because it makes the area 'visceral' and 'edgy.'
The show is long, but rarely dull and occasionally, in it's own scurrilous politically incorrect way, outrageous and devastating. I suspect there might be a backlash at the unashamed cultural stereotyping, but the purpose is a broader one and relates to the need for communities to feel secure enough to laugh at themselves and in so doing find immunity from offence. It's important that the National puts on work like this knocking over sacred cows, whoever they belong too.